Friday, February 25, 2011

Def By Design: Cey Adams CITY Crew

Cey Adams talks Def Jam, opportunity, and the evolution of visual design in Hip-Hop
Famed graphic designer, graffiti legend, and all-around creative genius, Cey Adams, has made his mark in hip-hop by designing some of the most pivotal images of our era including the unforgettable album cover of Biggie’s Ready to Die, Jay-Z’s classic Vol.1,2 and 3 covers, and the edgy logo for Dave Chappelle’s widely successful Chappelle’s Show just to name a few.

Starting out as a graffiti artist in the early 1980’s in NYC, the Jamaica, Queens native joined Russell Simmons’ budding record label Def Jam Recordings, as its Creative Director. There, Cey created visual identities, album covers, and advertisement campaigns for renowned artists such as Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Public Enemy, De La Soul, L.L Cool J, Jay-Z, DMX, and Notorious B.I.G as well as co-founding Def Jam’s in-house visual design firm, The Drawing Board. Late last year, Cey (with long-time buddy, Bill Adler) released the book DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop which showcased over 30 years of hip-hop influenced art.
Aside from the hip-hop culture, Cey also has had a hand in creating ad campaigns for Nike, Adidas, Jansport, Coca-Cola, and HBO.
It’s safe to say that Cey’s striking, avant-garde designs will be forever embedded in the minds of every hip-hop head and in the heart of the hip-hop culture, period. Strap yourself in and take a look inside the mind of a visual phenomenon.
Where do you draw your inspiration from when going though the design process?
Cey Adams: Well, it’s a couple of things. I mean, for the most part a lot of what I draw inspiration from now would be a lot of the younger artists that are working. And yeah, I really try to surround myself with young artist that are aware of what’s going on within music and in hip-hop. Also, people that are informed, I mean that’s one of the things that really excites me when I’m working with younger artists and they are aware of some of the graphic designers and graffiti artists that have come before them, those are some of the things that really inspire me quite a bit. And in addition to that, I pull inspiration from a lot of the pioneers. I mean, I’m a fan of a lot of contemporary artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and people like that.
Did you get a chance to meet Andy Warhol?
Cey Adams: I have, yeah; I met him in the 80’s. He use to hang out downtown a lot so he was always at parties that he was having or throwing and he went to a lot of the clubs where me and my friends hung out so I actually did get to spend some time with him.
Was he as flamboyant as people said he was?
Cey Adams: (Laughs) You know what? I mean, he was an unusual guy but he was somebody who I was aware of from a very young age so for me, it didn’t seem strange. I mean, he always appeared to be a little bazaar but most artists are so he wasn’t any different than how a lot of my friends are today.
You have worked on many projects throughout your illustrious career from graffiti work to designing for major companies such as HBO, Nike, and Coca-Cola. With all your experience what kind of artist do you consider yourself to be?
Cey Adams: Um, it really depends on who I’m talking to. In some circles, I’m still considered a graffiti artist but in other circles, people know me for graphic design work I’ve done in the music business. And then there are other people that just know me for the corporate product placement work that I’ve done so it really kind of varies but for the most, I describe myself as a visual artist because I think that that is something that most people understand. Some of those other terms, depending on who you’re talking to, people may not or may not understand what they mean.
Do you ever get the urge to go back to your roots and tag a little something on a wall?
Cey Adams: (Laughs) Nah, at this point in my life, there’s just too much risk and not enough gain. It’s just something I did when I was younger and now everywhere I look, all I think about are the consequences so if I’m painting on a wall, it’s definitely a legal wall because yeah, there’s just no benefit to it.
You and Bill Adler released the book, Definition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop, late last year. What inspired you to team up with Adler to create Definition?
Cey Adams: Well, Bill and I went to a book party for the Ego Trip cats around ten years ago when they put out the Ego Trip’s Book of Hip-Hop Lists and we were talking about doing a book about the art and design of hip-hop. But more than talking about doing it, we were kind of complaining about what had already been done and what had not been done well and so a bunch of time went by so finally we decided that we had to take matters into our own hands. We jotted down a few ideas and we put together a business plan and we started shopping for an agent to take our product around to publish it. We just decided that the timing was right to do it ourselves because no one was going to do a better job than we could do because we lived through the whole history as it relates to hip-hop. You know, both of us have been around since the beginning. So that was really the inspiration and we are old friends so it didn’t seem like a stretch for us to work together because we’ve known each other for so long
How has visual design in Hip-Hop changed over the years, from when you first started out to now?
Cey Adams: Certainly, technology has changed the way people create. The one thing I think is a little concerning to me is that it seems as though people have kind of gotten away from working by hand, doing things the old-fashioned way. When I first started, that was the only way to design, you had to do things by hand and graphic design was founded based upon the idea of working with your hands and creating from your mind first and then you would just execute your design. I think a lot of young people working today rely too much on computer tricks so you can’t always gauge how knowledgeable someone is when it comes to the principles of design. That’s something that I try to encourage young people to do and I talk to them all the time and tell them to get out there and get your hands dirty and create something from scratch without relying on the computer. But now, when you talk about the digital age, one of the things that changed quite a bit is that people don’t have to leave their house when they decide they want to get their message out. You can post your work on the internet or on the social networking sites, and presto, your name the image can be seen by millions of people all over the world so certainly, in that way, it’s changed quite a bit because it’s given people a platform that was not there before.
What was the first album cover you designed? The last? Most memorable?
Cey Adams: The first album cover I designed, I think it was for Oran “Juice” Jones and it was called To be Immortal but the first 12-inch single that I did was for The Real Roxanne for a song called “Bang Zoom.”
The last one I designed was L.L Cool J’s All World 2, this is volume 2 of his greatest hits (released December 8, 2009).
The most memorable cover for me, it was actually L.L’s All World and the reason for that is that I got an opportunity to work with Albert Watson who is one of the most amazing photographers of all time. He shot the cover image for All World and it was one of my favorite projects because between L.L Cool J and the folks at Def Jam, they gave me complete creative control to just do what I thought was best for the project which was great because I got to do exactly what I wanted without any interruption. Plus there was a nice budget attached so I could hire someone like Albert Watson and that kind of thing is very rare if you talk to any designer whether it be hip-hop or rock and roll, to have an opportunity like that where you can perceive your work in the way you want without any interference from management or the label. It was a huge deal and so that was a great thing for me. The last time I remember having that sort of opportunity was working on [Public Enemy’s] Fear of a Black Planet. So working on All World was a lot of fun and it’s great to come around a bunch of years later and work on a follow-up for that.
What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?
Cey Adams: The thing I consider to be my biggest accomplishment would be watching all the young artists that have worked under me blossom and develop their own careers, whether it be designers or art directors or junior designers, there’s been so many people that have come through the doors of The Drawing Board and Def Jam that have gone on to run their own design studios. They just got an opportunity to do great things. Not only designers, there are a lot of photographers who we gave opportunities to as well and so it’s great to see people like Danny Clinch go on to have a great career. That’s something I’m really proud of. If you look at Steve Carr, a big-time Hollywood filmmaker, so many of these people got their start in the same place and I just feel fortunate to be somebody who was a part of their careers from the early days and just sharing in those opportunities is something that’s exciting to me. That’s something I learned from Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen, giving people opportunities the way they both gave me an opportunity.
Did you have a hand in this year’s 25th Anniversary of Def Jam?
Cey Adams: I did, I designed a 52-page booklet and a 5-CD set for Def Jam 25. I did the design on that and Bill Adler wrote the liner notes so that was a nice little opportunity for us to reunite again. In addition to that, it was a great opportunity to work with all the photographers I mentioned and really try to recreate some of the magic that the label was founded on in the early years. Having conversations with Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons and Lyor was the closest thing to getting the old team back together again and kind of reliving those great years. Working on the 25thAnniversary project was a lot of fun because it reminds me of really what a great label Def Jam is and the fact that we all kind of came from the same place and we all got our start at the same place and now everybody’s off, going in different directions but it’s nice to celebrate anniversary and get a chance to look back because most of the time, we’re all so busy and don’t have a chance to do that.
What are some of your upcoming projects?
Cey Adams: Right now, we’re [Def Jam] still in Def Jam 25 mode and working on a huge coffee table book to coincide with the anniversary of the label so that’s been keeping me very busy. I also spend a lot of time teaching these days. I’m working with high school students at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I’m teaching art there. I also participate in a workshop for inner-city youth that teaches young people about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and so every year during the King holiday, we showcase artwork that the grade school students have created in honor of Dr. King’s birthday. I’m really trying to spend more of my time teaching young people about the art of hip-hop and really utilizing my time in hip-hop almost as an ambassador to give young people a foundation, a platform to create, and guidance so they can have a sense of the people that came before them. They all know who Jay-Z and Rhianna is but they may not remember some of the early artists so I feel like it’s my duty as someone who was there to educate them about who 3rd Bass is and some of the earlier artists that people may not talk about a lot today.
What advice would you give to aspiring designers trying to break into the industry? Where should they start?
Cey Adams: I think the thing to do first and foremost, and this hasn’t changed regardless of how much time has passed, is to always be prepared for success. I think the easiest way to do that is to have your work digital work so if someone asks to see samples of your work, you have a website or a blog they can go to with clear information about who you are. Set up a working email address with your first and last name, not aliases. Be accessible and don’t be afraid to post information and artwork on sites. People get to see what you’ve done and the most important thing you can do for yourself is to make your work available for people to see. Don’t hold on to it because competition is fierce today so the last thing you want to do is hoard the artwork so people can’t see it. You want your name and your work to be out here. People don’t spend as much time looking for talent like they use to, nowadays, whatever they see if front of them, their like, “okay, that guy’s talented, let’s go with him” so it’s up to you to put your work to the forefront. Another piece of advice is to draw, don’t get so caught up on what’s happening on the computer as it pertains to all the bells and whistles and all the design tricks. Just draw because if your work is strong and you’re prepared, the opportunity will find you. You don’t need to start your own company right away, just be prepared and try to do as much good work as you can. The best thing you can do as well is do mock-ups of other artist’s album covers, flyers, posters, etc. so people can see what would happen if they hired you for a 50 Cent, or L.L Cool J, or Jay-Z project. And in some cases, the artist might see it; you never know how things are going to end up. For example, it was this young guy, a graphic designer who worked for an ad agency, he did a whole series of Wu-Tang album covers in his own interpretation and it was beautiful! It got so much attention in the New York Times and people were talking about it. And that’s what I’m talking about, not waiting for an opportunity to find you but you finding the opportunity. Take advantage of your resources and have fun because once you start working, you’re always going to have a client that has an idea about what it is they want but it’s great to show them what your interpretation is before they give you that idea or before they give some sort of creative direction.
Any shout outs?
Cey Adams: If I had to shout out anybody, I definitely think it would be all the people who have given me an opportunity. Everybody from Russell and Lyor to folks like Magic Johnson and Andre Harrell, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, certainly the guys from Run DMC, you know, all the folks that have given me a platform to create work and give opportunities to the next generation.
For more info on Cey Adams and his work, visit his official website at:

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